How to Advertise During a Down Economy

Four marketing tips to surivive a dour holiday forecast.

July 8, 2011, 5:42 PM

Sept. 23, 2011— -- After suffering a brutal, extended recession, the current climate is showing no job growth, housing sales continuing to fall, consumer confidence on edge and economic forecasts dismal. It is unprecedented in our lifetime and quite frankly, even if it isn't a depression, it's depressing.

We are entering the holiday season and experts are already telling us there will be fewer people in stores and it is unlikely the national sales rate will even keep up with inflation. So, if the economy sucks and it's going to continue to suck, what are advertisers and marketers supposed to do? Should we fold up the chairs, take down the tent and stop advertising? Should we cut back on staff and hours, draw the blinds and sit on our hands fretting about the future?

Of course not. There is plenty of business out there and this might be just the time to give your company an advertising and marketing overhaul so you don't wind up being one of the companies that can't cut the mustard and therefore doesn't make it through the night. (I've always wanted to mix a metaphor in print.)

Here are some advertising and marketing thoughts on how to have a decent holiday season and a much better year next year:

The first thing to realize is that there is still plenty of consumer money out there. Economic experts are talking in single digits. For instance, the forecast for retail sales for November and December according to ShopperTrak (they use foot traffic and economic data to forecast) is that it will rise 3 percent. Last year it rose 4.1 percent. So, as a marketer, you want to hold on to your 1.1 percent and to grow you need to eat off someone else's plate.

How? Well for starters, follow the trends.

During the downturn, in our economy certain shopper behaviors have increased. Bargain hunting has increased coupon use—so consider offering coupons. If you already do, increase their value or distribute them more broadly. If you distribute them in print, consider distributing them online. If you distribute them online, consider going mobile with them. According to Neilson research 50 percent of Americans will have a smart phone by the end of this year and many are using them to shop more efficiently.

Another trend is the increasing demand for local products from local food to items made by local craftsmen. Source more of your products locally and let your customers know.

There is an old adage that has more relevance today than it ever has: Fish where the fish are. The recession has whipped the poor and smacked the middle class around a bit, but the wealthy are still the wealthy and they can't resist true bargains on luxury goods. Point your portable tractor beam (you do have one, don't you?) at the wealthier zip-codes in your area offering significant discounts on luxury goods and soon you'll find you have not only increased traffic but your customer base as well.

Now here comes one that potentially reaps the biggest gains but is harder than it should be: Enhance your customer service. The shopping experience ranks high when consumers are asked about factors that are important to them. It is amazing how many companies take this for granted, not offering simple courtesies like public restrooms, well-displayed items or friendly and knowledgeable staff. So imagine when you start to take it further by offering things like customization, personal shoppers, appointments and receptions--customers might believe you actually want their business.

By all accounts it doesn't look like we'll see the crazy growth of the 80s anytime soon. But the economy doesn't have to grow for your brand to grow. Become the path of least resistance by making it easier and easier for consumers to do business with you. Don't tweet and Facebook because it's the hot thing to do; instead become a listener and begin to structure your product and service offerings more in line with the needs of your consumers. The more you listen, the more you will learn.

When the economy is growing overall a rising tide lifts all boats. But in an economic storm, companies who know when and where to set sail and drop anchor will survive and have the opportunity to prosper.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Larry Woodard is a director on the Advertising Week board and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' New York Council.

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